Origins of Kung Fu

Although many people believe that the Chinese martial arts originated at the Shaolin Temple there is some evidence to suggest that the Chinese martial arts were well developed before the Shaolin Temple was built. The temple was built in the third century A.D. but there are references to such individuals as the physician Hwa Tuo who was using exercises based on animal movements to improve the physical health of his patients well before that date. Hwa Tuo lived at the time of the Three Kingdom, around A.D. 220-65. Hwa Tuo is said to have created a set of exercises based upon five animals: the tiger, bear, monkey, stork and dear. The reason this is significant is that there is even today a strong relationship between animal movement and the Chinese martial arts. In fact the Shaolin temple did become a centre of development for the martial arts and remained so for more than a thousand years before it was dissolved by the Ching Dynasty in the Eighteenth Century.


To rectify monks' fitness problem, Dat Mo (Bodidharma) devised exercises combining physical movement and breathing, thus strengthening the bodies and minds of his disciples. This enabled them to pursue the spiritual path with more vigor. Since Dat Mo was himself of the warrior Caste (Ksatriva) it is possible some of the exercises were drawn from the Indian martial tradition. 

The entrance to the Shaolin Temple
The entrance to the Shaolin Temple


The Chinese martial arts, and indeed all the martial arts that followed, appear to be the result of a cross-fertilisation between India and China and the passage of people between the two counties. Monks and merchants were constantly making the journey and it is not unreasonable to assume that they required trained body guards or even to learn to defend themselves.